CIO, Data Center, Opinion

Make IT Relevant By Managing Technical Debt

IT departments are wallowing in debt… technical debt. Just like those that have racked up massive credit card bills, technical debt can be debilitating and results in an IT function that struggles to maintain its relevance in the organization.

What, exactly, is technical debt? Most definitions of the phrase identify it as poorly designed code or systems that were not thought through prior to their implementation. I see technical debt as a far broader phenomenon. Any time that a decision was made in the interest of expediency that results in the need for constant maintenance, an organization adds to its technical debt balance sheet. Moreover, I see every repeatable task performed by IT staff members as line items on the technical debt invoice. This includes such items as creating user accounts, managing printers, and out routine tasks. If it’s repeatable and it being done manually, it’s a part of the technical debt problem.

Just like financial debt, technical debt comes with a significant opportunity cost. Every hour that is expended on servicing this debt is an hour lost that could have been spent on services that directly impact the business. The business may not always see technical debt for what it is; often, as technical debt moves from simply inconvenient to becoming staggering, the phenomenon may manifest itself as worsening customer services, reduced system uptime metrics, and even staff turnover. Those that do not understand what is really happening may see the situation as one where IT simply doesn’t “get it” while the reality is that the staff is working hard but is having trouble keeping their heads above water.

However, not all technical debt is necessarily bad. After all, there are costs associated to eliminating technical debt from an organization. CIOs need to conduct comprehensive costs analyses to determine which technical debt is good and which is bad. In general, though, whenever there is a reasonable opportunity to reduce the technical burden, it should be seriously considered. Here are a few things that I believe CIOs should be doing today to start rethinking how they handle debt and ensure that their organizations are truly meeting the needs of the business:

  • In any development scenario, adhere as closely as possible to best practices and don’t be tempted to take too many shortcuts. This article does a fantastic job in explaining development-based technical debt.
  • Automate all the things. Ok, I know you probably can’t automate everything, but when it comes to the really routine things, find ways to automate them. The level of automation will be different for everyone and will be based on individual needs, of course. CIOs should analyze the cost of maintaining the status quo against what it would take to automate each repeatable process. If there is a return on the investment, consider automation. Bear in mind that returns in this case will be measured in man hours, although hard dollar amounts may also apply. Also bear in mind the potential for redeploying freed up IT staff to more business critical needs.
  • Outsource if you can. I’m a big believer in the fact that there are some things that internal IT departments just should not do. Foe example – managing printers. Outsource that to a company that specializes in printers. Look across all of your services. Are there activities that you can outsource that will provide lower costs and/or better service or that someone else can do better?
  • Consider emerging data center opportunities. One of the big trends we’re seeing today in the emerging IT vendor landscape is a focus on making things simple. From cloud providers to converged data center infrastructure opportunities, maintaining status quo in the data center may be a terrible idea when it comes to improving the overall efficiency of the IT department. In traditional environments, there is a lot of technical debt to service. Emerging opportunities may provide CIOs with a way to meet key business needs with far less effort than was possible before.

Summary

Getting rid of as much technical debt as possible helps an IT organization focus more on real business needs rather than having to constantly worry about putting out fires. CIOs should carefully consider every element of their IT operations to determine where there may be opportunity to reduce debt and improve the relevancy of the IT department in the organization.